NEW YORK (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS)Making primary care clinicians comfortable performing basic mental health diagnoses and management is vital for adequately treating U.S. patients with psychiatric disorders, Dr. Lawrence V. Amsel said at a psychopharmacology update held by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

In many parts of the United States there are “far fewer mental health practitioners than are needed.” Training primary care clinicians so that they are willing to do more mental health work can help address this issue, said Dr. Amsel , a clinical psychiatrist at Columbia University in New York and a faculty member of the REACH Institute , a New York–based nonprofit focused on disseminating mental health skills to primary care clinicians, teachers, parents, and others. “It’s like producing psychiatric extenders.” By consulting with a broad range of primary care clinicians, a psychiatrist can take care of a lot more kids than usual in a single psychiatric practice,” Dr. Amsel said.

But encouraging primary care providers to become more active in mental health diagnosis and management is not easy. “Most prescriptions for mental health indications are now written by primary care clinicians, but they often describe themselves as uncomfortable prescribing these medications and not adequately trained,” Dr. Amsel said in an interview.

“Their main anxiety comes from making the wrong diagnosis and then doing harm” as a consequence of their error, he explained during his talk at the meeting. Training by the REACH curriculum highlights the role of well-validated tools now available for refining assessment of a patient and boosting confidence in the diagnosis. This includes instruments like the Pediatric Symptom Checklist and the Mental Status Exam . “Reliable and validated tools are available to improve identification and assessment of mental health problems that can be used efficiently in clinical practice,” Dr. Amsel said.

Another aspect to mental health management that often troubles primary care clinicians is doubt about their knowledge and ability to safely and effectively prescribe psychiatric medications. The REACH Institute curriculum tells clinicians to focus on each patient’s primary diagnosis and treat that first, and whenever possible to use medications that are evidence based, with good supporting documentation from double-blind, randomized, controlled trials.

“We recommend that clinicians get a summary slide of the evidence that they can show to patients or family members if necessary to make clear that there is a scientific basis for the treatment and that it is based on facts and data rather than on opinion,” he said.

Training for primary care clinicians also emphasizes that management goes beyond drug treatment and also must include a psychosocial plan for each patient.

Members of the health care system have begun to “recognize that mental health is responsible for much if not most disability. Until now, this importance had not been recognized. Now that it is being recognized, I think people will develop systems that increase the capacity for identifying children with mental health issues and provide them with improved care,” Dr. Amsel said.

Dr. Amsel had no disclosures aside from his work for the REACH Institute.

On Twitter @mitchelzoler


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